A Golf Pro Recovers from Bipolar Disorder
by Don Walin
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
My name is Don Walin. I am a retired Canadian PGA golf professional. I am also a published book author and a mental health advocate.
I have lived with bipolar disorder since 1989 (back when it was referred to as “manic depression”), seasonal affective disorder (SAD) since 1995, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) since 2007. Despite these challenges, I manage very well.
I am currently fifty-eight years old, and am looking forward to my burgeoning career as an author. I’m hoping other doors will open, and that there will be opportunities come my way.
While working as a golf pro, I was battling severe bipolar disorder. I was an active member of the Canadian Professional Golfer’s Association (CPGA) from 1987-1995. From 1989-1999, I was hospitalized ten times in psychiatric wards (usually for about six weeks at a time), mostly for full blown manic episodes. After each one of these episodes, I had very lengthy severely depressed episodes.
In the year 2000, after an extremely difficult decade, I was finally put on the right combination of psychiatric medications, which I still take every day. I have been well ever since.
I also made some significant lifestyle changes which have been extremely important in maintaining my wellness. In the end, my book is a real success story about recovery from a major mood disorder.
I want to give hope and inspiration to as many people as possible, especially those living with mental illness, their family, friends, and loved ones. I want to help erase the stigma towards mental illness, and help educate the general public towards this extremely important topic which affects all of us, in one way or another.
I grew up in the small town of Wetaskiwin, Alberta in the 1970s. I was a normal young boy. I did well in school, and I loved sports, especially golf and hockey. I started playing golf at age seven. I loved the game right away! I started working in the Pro Shop at the Wetaskiwin Golf Club when I was only ten. By age twelve, I had a 7 handicap. It was only a 9 hole course at that time. Three short years later, I had a 3 handicap. I played my amateur career all over Alberta, both in Junior and Men’s golf tournaments.
I had a great start to begin my professional career, by becoming a graduate of the world renowned San Diego Golf Academy (SDGA) in August, 1986. I received a diploma in Golf Operations and Management from this prestigious two-year school. Living in Southern California was the best two years of my life. I received a great education, and the lifestyle was awesome!
My childhood dream came true when I became a member of the Canadian Professional Golfer’s Association (CPGA) in the spring of 1987. I was employed as a CPGA Assistant Golf Pro at the world famous Jasper Park Lodge golf course in Alberta.
In 1989, three years into what was looking like a promising career, I was working at a golf course on Vancouver Island in British Columbia (B.C.). Completely out of the blue, I had my first major manic episode. It was like someone flipped a switch in my brain. One minute I was normal, then within a few minutes I started this manic behavior. I started writing like a madman. Looking back, my writing didn’t make much sense. My mania kept escalating over the next few days. I had no sleep during this time.
I was drinking at nightclubs and wandering around the downtown streets of Victoria. My mind was going a million miles an hour. For my friends and family, I was missing for three days. On the third day I was picked up by the police in a park where I was acting extremely bizarre. I was delusional (having false beliefs) and in a state of psychosis (out of touch with reality). I thought I was making a movie about golf and that there were people filming me, even though I couldn’t see them. I was “acting” the part of a golfer, swinging my club (a deflated tire tube) at an invisible golf ball. I was running around and jumping up and down, celebrating my “good shots”. The police took me to a hospital. This led to me being involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward. I was diagnosed with having “manic depression” (bipolar disorder). I was discharged after six weeks. My family and I were completely unfamiliar with this mental illness. There is no history of mental illness in my family that we are aware of. My illness was likely caused by too much stress, resulting in a chemical imbalance in my brain.
From 1990-1995, I worked at golf courses in B.C. and Alberta when I was well enough to do so. In 1992, I received my “Class A” status with the CPGA, and in 1993, I achieved my goal of being employed as a “Class A” Head Golf Professional.
In 1994, I had a full blown manic episode while working at the golf course.
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With a full blown manic episode, I would become delusional and psychotic (out of touch with reality). Some of my symptoms would include increased energy and confidence, racing thoughts (my mind going a million miles an hour), rapid speech (talking really fast), very little or no sleep for days, promiscuity (I would get bold, even reckless, with “affairs”), have flight of ideas (endless ideas coming into my head about business endeavors) along with grandiose thinking (thinking I was the richest, smartest man in the world.)
I was picked up by the police and put in jail for a couple of hours. Then, I was transferred to the hospital, and was put in the psychiatric ward for another month and a half. It was the third job I lost because of my mental illness.
With the police, I feel like I got really lucky. They picked me up and brought me to the hospital at least six times. I was never handcuffed or treated aggressively and was always treated well. They just seemed to know how to deal with the situation properly. I was always cooperative, so I know this helped my cause.
My hospital stays were good and bad. In a state of mania, I had a lot of fun and good times as a patient in a psych ward. There were several nice and intelligent people to talk with. The bad part was having conflicts with some psychiatrists and psych nurses that were arrogant or lacked compassion. The worst stays were when I was involuntarily committed and kept in a locked ward. I spent the whole time in the smoking room and pacing hallways. It got better when I had some privileges, such as a weekend pass to go out and home with family.
I would be treated with medication to stop the mania. The antipsychotic medication they gave me was an extremely powerful sedative. I hated the feeling of being so drugged. When I was stable, I would be discharged.
In my early teens, my friends and I drank beer almost every weekend. I kept drinking throughout my teens, and into my twenties. I knew I was drinking too much. As a result, I went “on the wagon” several times, but I always fell off and started drinking again.
Finally, at the age of twenty nine, I became very honest with myself and became a “self-diagnosed” alcoholic. When I was drinking and taking psych medication at the same time, I ended up getting really sick. I quit drinking cold turkey. It was the smartest thing I ever did. Now, I’ve been a “recovered alcoholic” for twenty eight years. I love being sober!
I’m not religious but am somewhat “spiritual”. I also think there is a link between mania and spirit. There have been several times when I was in a state of mania that I sensed people’s spirits/souls. This was good positive energy. I also sensed the spirit of God coming from within or through people. This was a “love” energy and felt very comforting. On the other hand, I also sensed the presence of the devil coming through others. I never saw the devil as any kind of wicked monster. I just sensed his evil spirit. People would look completely normal to me physically. It seemed like I could sense these spirits through their eyes. It is said that the eyes are the window to the soul. Mostly, it was like my psyche was picking up on this energy.
I thought I was Jesus Christ many times when I was in a state of mania. During my last manic episode (in 1999) I thought I was both God and Jesus. I always knew that I was still myself, Don Walin. My psychiatrist told me that from the one percent of the population who have bipolar disorder, only two percent think they are Jesus when manic and that only one percent think they are God. Maybe I experienced a rare state of spiritual enlightenment? My behavior wasn’t altered because I thought I was God and/or Jesus.
To educate myself and to try and make sense of my experiences I read about twenty-five books about the spiritual realm, consciousness, the brain, and bipolar disorder. From doing this, I developed my own “Mania Spirit Theory”. When I discussed this with my psychiatrist, he agreed that there was some real substance to my experiences.
My “Mania Spirit Theory” includes the following symptoms: increased energy (physically, emotionally, mentally, and psychic ability); enhancement of one’s senses (including our sixth sense); heightened awareness; increased perception; elevated state of consciousness; mental telepathy (communicating with spirit).
My theory also includes the following spiritual beliefs: There is a universal collective consciousness; we are mind, body, spirit/soul, psyche and consciousness; everything in the universe is energy; God and Jesus are in all of us; we are all part of one; God is love; Christ consciousness means becoming one with the Christ within us.
My bipolar disorder has by far been my biggest challenge out of my three mental illnesses, so I have focused on this for this article. The worst thing was my depressed episodes, which usually lasted for about eight months, and I thought about suicide constantly.
That doesn’t mean that OCD and SAD (seasonal affective disorder) should be ignored. SAD is winter depression caused by a lack of sunshine. I use a SAD light during winter months that is designed to simulate sunshine and it has helped me a lot. My OCD is a “checking” and “counting” obsession and compulsion. My mind is obsessed with checking things like making sure the stove is off, the doors are locked and many other things. I count a lot, usually repetitively (1,2,3…1,2,3…over and over). These two mental illnesses have definitely been quite difficult for me for many years and continue to challenge me up to the present time.
Even with three mental illnesses, my life is pretty normal. I believe this can apply to anyone. The right medication and lifestyle can do wonders! Keeping the stress in your life as low as possible is crucial. Recovery from severe bipolar disorder and addiction has put me in a great place!
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with thoughts about suicide, please call, text, or chat the Suicide/Crisis Lifeline at 988.